Late to the party

I showed up for the Super Bowl party around 7:30, after my internship finished, and was looking forward to hanging out with people.

All the food was gone when I got there, and then everyone started to leave just after 8. Ended up getting to talk with just one guy, and the only reason I have for attending a SuperBowl party is to spend time with friends. The game itself holds no interest for me.

There’s nothing I could have done differently, but the gap between expectation and experience was like a kick in the balls.

I honestly thought the game started at 8. ‬

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The enduring charm of Matthew Cuthbert

Years ago as my wife read the “Anne of Green Gables” books to our older two, I couldn’t help but noticing that when he didn’t know to say — a frequent occurrence around Anne Shirley– Matthew Cuthbert tended to fall back on the phrase, “Well now, I don’t rightly know.”

After he dies, I suggested a scene in which Anne uses black magic to revive him. In true Anne Shirley style, the spell goes wrong, and Matthew becomes a zombie. His fallback phrase becomes “Well now, I don’t rightly know. Brains!”

Matthew was such a meek and big-hearted man, strong in such an unassuming way. You could tell Anne was the daughter he’d never realized he’d spent his whole life dreaming of having, but once she came along there was no way even Marilla was going to get him to let go of her.

Easily my favorite character in the series, living or undead.

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Taboo definitions for friendly words

Twenty to thirty years ago, one of the popular games in my circles was Taboo. In this game, there is a word you want others to guess (“sandwich”), and there is a list of words you are not allowed to use as you steer them toward the correct answer (bread, peanut butter, ham, earl, knuckle).

Games like this succeed because of shared experiences. If you just had a phone conversation with your teammate in which you delicately referred to someone with “the 10-letter O-word,” you have an easy clue for your teammate that will leave everyone else scratching their heads in confusion when the taboo word is “overweight.” Best of all, there’s no risk of saying heavy, fat, obese or any of the other banned words.

Similarly, when teamed up with your wife, you’re likely to confuse others with “You put this on your brain in the morning,” but she’ll know the answer is “shampoo.”

Twenty-five years ago, I was back from Haiti and a period of unrest leading up to a U.S. invasion to restore its democratically elected leader. Alas, no one else on my team, nor at the party, shared the context of my recent experiences. As such they were not prepared for what happened when it was my turn.

“You take a tire, fill it with gasoline, and throw it over someone’s head,” I said. “When you light it on fire you have a …”

The correct answer, of course, is “necklace.” The response I got was a dead silence, followed by “Oh my God” and a nervous laugh, before someone quietly suggested moving on to the next card.

Hints like these can serve as a measure of common experience. Consensus was that there wasn’t much of it that was recent, or at least not enough to cover the areas of difference. In the same way, some missionary stories sound adventurous, and others move us close enough to the edge of our comfort zones that we remember why we’re in Pennsylvania and not, say, Mogadishu.

Next time, stick with “candle.”

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Putting Brian on the spot

They say a good host always makes the guests feel welcome, but sometimes the host needs a hand to feel comfortable in their own home.

Eighteen or 19 summers ago, the Bible study that Brian Tarantino hosted in his living room had morphed into a dinner club. Rather than studying the book of Philippians — it is a rule that home Bible studies always must focus on the book of Philippians; unless they’re on a gospel, in which case it has to be the gospel of Mark — every Tuesday night people from our church in North Brunswick would travel to Hillsborough and have dinner with Brian, his wife, and a dozen or so other people from the church.

It was informal, it was friendly, and it helped people at a rapidly changing church connect with one another over a meal. Never mind the sermons that no one else was paying attention to either, who are these strange ducks in the next row of folding chairs? This is Charlotte. She works in customer service at a car dealership, which is why she’s not allowed to talk with customers who come to the car dealership where she works. Over here is Katherine. She has a gift for finding the one thing about an 11-year-old boy that most differentiates him from his peers,and then loudly focusing on that unique trait for 15 minutes until everybody else in earshot and outside it, is staring at the poor boy like he’s a living specimen in a butterfly collection, pinned through delicate wings to an unforgiving background while with all his mind he is willing himself back to being a caterpillar so he can crawl away. And in this corner is a sweet little baby whose parents inexplicably don’t want her to nod off to sleep at 6:30, even though they look like they haven’t slept in three nights

At the time I was managing editor of the Hillsborough Beacon and The Manville News, and when people learned that, inevitably they wanted to know what was going on with Route 206 (It’s around 8 o’clock; the rush-hour gridlock should loosen up in a few more hours), how redevelopment was progressing in Manville (very slowly), and is the mayor on crack (ha ha, no comment). Another popular question: Any interesting stories you’ve uncovered recently? (As a matter of fact…)

This particular week, I was enjoying the afterglow of a feature story I had uncovered while trying to show my reporter how many interesting stories there are that don’t begin with “Police arrested” or “Officials voted.” I had found and interviewed a woman who claimed her house was haunted by a malignant spirit called the Watcher. Victims would be minding their own business, when gradually the feeling would steal over them that someone was staring at them. Their skin would crawl, the hair on the backs of their neck would stand on end, and finally they would whip their heads around an annoyance, and find that there was no one there. As I explained, it was if someone had died and thought, “I can’t get into heaven, and I don’t want to go to hell. I know! I’ll sit in this lady’s basement and stare at people while they watch reruns of ‘I Love Lucy!'”

As often happens when a supposedly true ghost story gets told, others rise to the surface. It’s almost like a tennis match. Serve, and return.

“We had a situation like that in our house,” one of the dinner guests said. I glanced over at Brian.

Brian, I should note, has a remarkable poker face that lets you know exactly how on board he is with the conversation unfolding in front of him. He’s got a royal flush look that he makes when everything is going better than he dreamed; a two-pair expression when it’s solid but it could be better; and even a three-of-a-kind look when he’s generally happy but realizes things could drift into unsafe waters.

Serious talk about ghosts and otherworldly things counts as drifting into unsafe waters to Brian, especially at a dinner party that is at least ostensibly connected to church. At this moment, a careful look at Brian’s poker face would reveal that his cards were the Two of Spades, the Six of Hearts, the Old Maid, a Blue Three from Uno, a Chance Monoply card that said Take a Ride on the Reading. Also, running through his mind: “I thought we were playing poker, but then why did Valerie call Diamonds as trump? Am I supposed buy a loaf of bread, a container of milk and a stick of butter, or 20 pounds of brown sugar?”

As the dinner guest recounted curious incidents of poltergeist activity that involved objects going missing and then reappearing amid telltale disruptions of the electric lighting, it seemed to Brian that conversation had not merely drifted into unsafe waters, it had hit an iceberg. Now the lifeboats were all gone while a thousand people remained trapped below decks, and the band was playing “Nearer My God to Thee.”

(Apropos of nothing, Brian is a lot of fun to play with on card night. Just make sure he’s not your partner.)

“I guess we just woke something up,” the dinner guest said. The story was concluded. In the rules of conversational tennis, it was time to return the volley with questions,or further ghost stories. Brian had the desperate look of a referee who has watched an entire set played out of bounds and who wants only to reassert court rules. Silly man, court rules don’t apply. You just need to trust the game.

“Hey guys,” he tried to interject, but it was hopeless. I swung at the ball and lobbed it smoothly across the net.

“Woke it up,” I repeated thoughtfully, and nodded. “It’s probably just as well. What was he going to do, sleep the rest of eternity? How lazy can you get?”

The guest look confused. “No, I mean –”

“Hey wake up!” Brian joined in, cajoling the imagined spirit asleep in its haunted bed. He realized that he understood the rules to the game, and there was no need to referee after all. “Are you going to sleep your whole afterlife away?”

His relief was palpable. The conversation, a minute ago unsettling and disquieting, was now on safe and familiar footing. A minute later, and it had moved on entirely and was forgotten.

Well almost. I still remember how uncomfortable he looked with the discussion and the relief he felt when I turned it all into a joke. But what could I do, after all? The poor guy was feeling uncomfortable in his own house.

It’s probably for the best that I didn’t tell him that the woman with the haunted house was his wife, and the Watcher was in his basement.

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Traveling around the world to meet your neighbors

Life is short and the world small. This morning I found myself effortlessly transported about 9,000 miles away to a day more than 33 years in the past.

It was an early summer day in December 1987. I was at the Rotorua, New Zealand, post office, shipping some of my worldly possessions back home to the States ahead of my own departure in a few shot weeks.

Now it’s true that people have a way of presenting themselves when they travel abroad that advertises where they’re from. Maybe it’s the style of dress they wear that is par for the course back home but is incongruous with where they are. Maybe it’s their volume when they speak, the posture they strike where they stand, or the way they walk. Whatever it is, we can always tell when someone doesn’t belong, but we also feel a kinship to our fellow sojourners when we meet them.

There were two of them, a pair of men standing by one of the desks,taking the final steps to ship a parcel back home.

“G’day,” I said. “Where you guys from?”

“Oh, we’re from America,” one of them said. They’d been in New Zealand a short period but probably had been asked that question a thousand times and probably also were wondering what gave it away that they were foreigners when they hadn’t even revealed an accent.

“I could tell,” I said. “Which state?”

“Pennsylvania.”

“No way,” I said. “Which part?”

“Oh, we’re from Pittsburgh,” the man replied. He looked at me with some amount of confusion. Many, if not most, Americans have a poor sense of world geography. My high school classmates back home found “New Zealand” too confusing and had decided for simplicity’s sake that I was in Australia, for instance. The idea that someone in Rotorua would know anything about Pennsylvania beyond its existence probably posed a puzzle for them.

What happened next was going to blow their minds.

“No kidding,” I said. “Which part?”

Pittsburgh has a lot of neighborhoods. WIlkingsburg, Squirrel Hills. Shadyside.

“We’re from Monroeville,” they said.

“No way,” I said. “I’m from just outside Monroeville.”

This was too much for them.

“Yeah, right,” one of them said.

“No way.”

“It’s true!” I said, excited. “You know Forbes Regional Hospital? Just past there, the road forks and you’ve got Haymaker Road and Saunders Station Road” — their jaws hit the floor — “if you take Saunders Station Road on the left, it takes you past the Fox Chase Pool, down to the old railroad near the municipal pool” — and as they listened, stunned, I gave directions that took them to the block I grew up on and where at that moment my younger brother was probably sleeping through his alarm.

The world is small, and life is short. Keep your eyes open. You never know whom you’ll meet.

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Resist evil by taking the high road

I remember learning years ago that when someone is bullying or abusing you, the minute you respond in kind, they seize upon that to justify what they’re doing.

I’ve seen this play out in personal relationships, in churches and in politics. The aggressor asserts the moral high ground, and people nod and affirm the need to be tough, even as they sigh and lament that things have come to this.

The only response I’ve ever found that works is to become and remain absolutely calm. The louder and more irrational and bellicose they become, the quieter and more respectful the response.

This doesn’t calm things down. Usually it makes things far worse because the light of Gandhian nonresistance throws everything into stark relief. Everyone sees the abuser for what they are, and it drives them mad with fury. But when you get through to the other side, assuming that you survive the process, real repentance, real reform and real restructuring become possible.

As it is written, “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble” (James 4:6).

May God give us strength to recognize evil when it’s in our midst, and to oppose it when others tell us to support it; and God give us grace to reach the other side.

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Waiting for happiness

Angel stood to one side, and watched without expression as the crew pulled her car up from the bottom of the lake. The woman in the car looked like she was in her thirties, casually but neatly dressed. Water poured past the edges of the doors as the car emerged, and the driver’s body fell first to the front and then to the left, where it came to rest against the window.

“Is this her?” one of the rescue workers asked. His voice was numb, but the sun had been warming the lake for weeks now, and no one could call the water cold.

The sheriff nodded.

“We’ll need the husband for positive ID, but it looks like her,” the sheriff said. “Guy’s been distraught ever since he found her letter three days ago.” He looked at the drowned woman and shook his head.

“What a waste. Young woman like that, husband and kids who love her. Bright future ahead of her.” He lowered his eyes and buried his hands in the depths of his pockets. “I’ve seen a lot in 35 years of law enforcement, but these are always the toughest. What possesses someone like that to throw it all away?”

“It wasn’t like that,” Angel said. She followed the sheriff back to his car, where he began to write his report. “You have to understand, it was awful.”

The sheriff ignored her; he just ticked boxes on his form and filled in spaces with the relevant information. Nearby other workers were putting the body into a bag and zipping it up for transport.

“It was dark all the time,” Angel said. “There was no one to talk with, no one who understood. No one who cared.”

The ambulance drove off in silence. It was followed by the tow truck, carrying the car. In a moment Angel was left alone with the sheriff. He looked out the window and shook his head sadly.

“You have to understand,” she cried. Her hands clutched the door, desperately. “I didn’t have any choice.”

The sheriff looked right through Angel and then drove off.

“You have to understand,” she said, her voice no more than an autumn whisper. She watched as the car vanished in the distance, and in another moment there was no other soul at the lake but her.

“I was so lonely,” she said. She.stood rooted to the spot, and wondered when the happiness would begin.

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The Sunday we made inserts for the church bulletin

When we were kids growing up in Level Green, we attended a church with a youth group that once a year would do an all-day lock-in to raise awareness of world hunger.

To keep our minds off food, we played games, had free time, and of course did churchy stuff like talk about Ezra 2:4 and what it means to our lives.

One year we had to make fillers for the church bulletin. The bulletin was a standard sheet of paper folded in half to create a four-page follow-along guide to a Presbyterian church service that varied only the one time, when the minister forgot the Unison Prayer and went straight from the Sharing of Joys and Concerns into a Greeting of Christian Unity. The outrage from Mrs. Hollister’s corner was so great that seven people were injured in the ensuing melee, six police cars had to be dispatched and 12 families left the church, for good, or at least until they discovered that the Methodist church down in Pitcairn didn’t have Shrove Tuesday pancake races, at which point they begrudgingly returned.

Now these bulletins, as one might expect, were an unadorned thing. The only picture was on the front, and it was a photo of the church building that had been taken when the church was still part of the Presbyterian Church North, back before that denomination and the Presbyterian Church South reunited in the late 1970s, the latter finally having agreed that owning slaves was bad; and those unable to agree had run off and formed the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, who complained about how liberal and godless the Presbyterian Church (USA) had become.

The rest of the bulletin was plain type, with use of all-caps for emphasis, and boldface when the typesetter got really excited. In this respect, it was rather like our pew Bibles, a translation called Good News for Modern Man, that abandoned the scholarship of the Revised Standard Version for something with a fourth-grade reading level, and the language of the King James Bible for the poetry of Dick and Jane.

Illustrations in the Good News Bible showed figurines who looked like faceless department store mannequins wearing long robes. The whole visual was disquieting, and like a Christian monster movie and slogan “Faceless Jesus: He’s Coming to orgive your Sins.” And this was years before anyone had thought of Slenderman, I must add.

It was our youth group leader’s idea to adorn these unremarkable church bulletins with an insert that contained an illustrated Bible verse. To assist us were art materials, paper and — because Betsy was smart and knew we neither knew any actual Bible verses nor could be trusted to pick one out — a selection of preapproved Bible verses, duly cited, that we could copy.

Write the verse. Illustrate it with flowers, sunshine, fluffy bunnies and happy singing birds. Stuff into a program. Repeat, until all the papers are used and all the bulletins have been filled. How hard could it be?

We weren’t a bad bunch of kids, and I can honestly say that the kids who didn’t want to be there, by and large weren’t. The girls especially turned out some really nice pictures that very may well still be hanging, framed, on someone’s living room wall, providing inspiration 35 years later.

And if the boys’ verses were accompanied by pictures of Steelers legends like Terry Bradshaw or “Mean Joe” Green, well, what could you do? We lived in the Pittsburgh area and Steelermania had been a religious sacrament ever God had tipped his hand with the Immacuate Reception in 1972.

For my part, I liked comic books, and I had just read a comic book retelling the origins of Galactus, and how he had been the last being to succumb to the end of the previous universe. He had survived into this one, reborn as a giant alien who consumed entire planets and had tried to devour the earth, only to be stopped by the Fantastic Four.

Somewhere out there is a family that came to church that Sunday morning and opened their bulletin to find a sheet of paper with the picture of a giant alien in a blue body suit with purple boots, gloves and headgear. Next to him, Isaiah 40:8

“The grass withers and the flowers fade, but the word of God endures forever. So speaks Galactus.”

It took eight police officers to subdue the riot that time, and nineteen families left the church, never to come back, until they discovered that the Methodist church in Pitcairn didn’t have a choral anthem right before the sermon.

After all, you need to have standards.

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Rainy Day Activity 12

Find an out-of-the-way stream in a public park that is easily accessible from the road. Buy two dozen bags of cement, and lay them end to end across the stream until they are stacked 4 feet high.

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Time to start paying the interns

untitledInterns are a funny thing in any profession.

They report to a supervisor who gives them tasks and feedback on their work, they have set hours, and they do the same vital work and the same grunt work as employees. The catch is, they’re not employees; and often they don’t get paid. At all.

That’s an arrangement that needs to end. It’s exploitative, and disproportionately benefits those who least need it.

I started working with newspaper interns at Forbes Inc. when I was a copy editor in the company’s newspaper division in Somerville, N.J.; and then later for The Packet Group in Princeton, N.J., and at Worrall Community Newspapers in Union, N.J. The exchange seemed fair enough: They got hands-on experience, training and clips; and in exchange we got their labor.

Only one thing was missing from this equation: a fair wage.

Internships don’t come easily. In addition to my other editorial duties, which included editing and paginating two weekly newspapers, in addition to writing editorials and the occasional news article, by taking on a college intern I essentially was agreeing to train a reporter I woudn’t get to keep more than a few months.

This was no minor thing. While newsroom interns did get dull jobs like rewriting the news releases and letters to the editor we received each week, their entire purpose for internship was the hands-on education it gave them.

Over the course of a summer internship, a college student under my watch learned how to spot, pitch, develop and write a news or feature story. They learned to guide against bias, to navigate the bends and curves of the Associated Press stylebook as it flowed like a river through the newsroom; and they got to meet and interview local officials. (One even asked for a chance to lay out Page One.)

They got the chance, in other words, to be real reporters.

I don’t know how an internship under my guidance compared to an internship elsewhere, but they all seemed to feel they had got something from it. One of them even won professional recognition for educational writing for a story she wrote under me about the school’s program for students with autism spectrum disorder.

But if they benefited from the training and experience we gave them, then we also benefited from the work that they provided in return. The coverage those interns provided of our communities, even if it was just a light and fluffy piece on how local pizzerias made their product stands out from all the other local pizzerias, helped us to provide the product we sold. They did a job that we otherwise would have paid a reporter or a free-lancer to do, and as long as they were doing it, the interns deserved to be paid too. As Scripture tells us; “Do not muzzle the oxen while they tread the grain” (Deuteronomy 25:4).

The notion of an unpaid internship as it is structured now, is one that favors students from wealthier and financially well-established families. An internship easily can run 20 hours in a single week, representing hundreds if not thousands of dollars in lost earning potential. Easily borne by families with six-figure salaries, it leaves less advantaged students either burdened with debt incurred to compensate for the lost wages, or it leaves them at a disadvantage professionally when the time comes to graduate and they lack the experience their wealthier peers could afford to get.

The educational benefits and experience of internships are too valuable to exclude people from, based on wealth or income. It’s time to end the practice of unpaid internships and see that everyone who gives hours to a company is reimbursed financially for their labor.

It’s the right thing to do.

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